Commentary & Perspective

2016 BRAID Summit: Fostering Open Dialogues about Diversity and Inclusion

Last week, the Anita Borg Institute and Harvey Mudd College hosted the annual BRAID (Building Recruiting and Inclusion for Diversity) Summit in Snowbird, Utah.

Launched in 2014, the BRAID initiative works with 15 universities across the nation to increase the percentage of women and students of color majoring in computer science. Each university has committed to a set of approaches to increase diversity within their computer science departments. Each department also committed to providing data for a research study that will document the progress made over the course of three years.

The 2016 BRAID Summit included representatives from BRAID schools and gave them a chance to candidly share their experiences, best practices and challenges around their efforts to build more diverse and inclusive academic computer science departments. Summit participants also benefited from hearing best practices from BRAID nonprofit partners, CMD-IT and NCWIT.  This was also the first year that BRAID strategic investors, including Facebook, Google, Intel and Microsoft attended the entire proceedings of the summit.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from this inspiring event:

Academic Diversity and Inclusion Stats Track with National Trends

The BRAID research team, led by UCLA’s Dr. Linda Sax, is conducting a mixed-methods, longitudinal study of the BRAID initiative. The BRAID research team is collecting data from students, faculty, staff, department chairs and administrators in order to answer a variety of research questions related to the departmental change process and best practices for attracting and retaining women and students of color in computing majors.

According to preliminary results from the team shared for the first time at the summit, the gender balance and race/ethnicity breakdown among students at BRAID schools tracks with national trends, with one exception: BRAID schools tend to see a slightly higher number of Asian & Pacific Islander students.

On average, 32 percent of computer science students are female and 68 percent are men. Interestingly, the female students are more ethnically and racially diverse, which also tracks with national trends. Among introductory course students at BRAID institutions, computing majors were more likely than non-computing majors to perceive their department as caring and supportive, and no differences were seen across gender.

Candid Conversations: What Works, and What Doesn’t for Diversity and Inclusion

Much of the summit was devoted to discussing how each BRAID school has implemented the program, what works and what still poses challenges.

One major area of focus for BRAID schools is revamping intro computer science classes to make them more welcoming and appealing to those students with little to no experience in the field. This includes experimenting with different programming languages for intro courses — a question which has led to lots of debate — more interactive teaching strategies like pair programming and introducing professional development courses for intro professors to ensure they are as engaging as possible. Collaboration with other academic departments is another approach BRAID schools are taking to offer joint majors and courses for students interested in a more interdisciplinary approach to computer science.

Participating in the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women and Computing (GHC) is also another key strategy to build confidence among the community of female and other underrepresented students. But just as important is sustaining the sense of community GHC inspires throughout the year. Schools are doing that by implementing ACM-W chapters and other student affinity groups on campuses. While there may be a critical mass of female students to form such communities, schools still face challenges as they try to reach out to and include other underrepresented minorities.  

The 2016 BRAID summit was a great success, thanks largely to the candid nature of the gathering. As one department chair put it, “What makes this meeting different from any other meeting I’ve been at for department chairs is the willingness to share challenges and successes.”

Other such meetings, he explained, tend to mostly focus on successes and leave no time to discuss the important challenges facing schools that are dedicated to making their computer science departments more inclusive and diverse. It’s a testament to the trust academics have in the BRAID team that this summit has become a venue for such honest and valuable interactions.

BRAID Brings Funders and Academics Together for Open Dialogue

From the perspective of BRAID funders, the summit provided unique visibility into the challenges universities face in a way they’ve never understood before, and gave the funders a better idea of how to approach engagement with university students and faculty.

To conclude, the BRAID summit is an effective ecosystem for university partners, funders and other stakeholders to work together and learn from each other about best practices and resources. The candid environment created at the BRAID summit fosters open dialogue about how these different groups can best work together to overcome the challenges of building more inclusive and diverse computer science departments that will attract and retain the best and brightest minds for generations to come.